Partnering with indigenous communities

Billabong with largetooth sawfish partly showing.

IMAGE: Peter Kyne.

Largetooth Sawfish (Pristis pristis), Speartooth Sharks (Glyphis glyphis) and Northern River Sharks (Glyphis garricki) are being studied in the Top End to learn more about their distribution, ecology and population status.

Indigenous people are major land and sea custodians and managers in northern Australia where these species occur. Indigenous communities and rangers have been helping NERP Marine Biodiversity Hub scientists with their research, providing guidance, practical assistance and access to Indigenous lands, as well as building skills and employment opportunities. The partnership is essential to furthering the understanding and management of threatened sawfishes and river sharks in the Northern Territory. Hub scientists aim to engage further with Indigenous communities when projects are of mutual interest.

Quad bike with gill net on back.

IMAGE: Billabong sawfish gillnetting on Malak Malak country, Daly River. Image: Peter Kyne.


The research team worked with Indigenous communities, Traditional Owners and rangers to survey for sawfishes and river sharks in the Daly River region and the Alligator Rivers region of Kakadu National Park. The collaboration provided employment and skill transfer opportunities to Indigenous communities participating in sawfish and river shark research.

As well as fostering opportunities for Indigenous employment and capacity building, the project sought to jointly identify opportunities to build on Indigenous knowledge, to ensure the effective and ethical communication of research outcomes to Indigenous communities, and to provide opportunities for Indigenous participation in project development. These guiding principles were borrowed from the Indigenous Engagement Strategy developed by the NERP Northern Australian Hub.

Key findings

Partnering with the Malak Malak Traditional Owners and Ranger Group provided unique opportunities to access Indigenous lands to survey sawfish habitat. This included the first application of environmental DNA (eDNA) survey techniques on threatened elasmobranchs, and on floodplains. (The eDNA technique use traces of DNA in water to detect the presence of species that occur there, through the collection and analysis of water samples and was a collaboration with the NERP Tropical Ecosystems Hub.)

Traditional knowledge of sawfish habitat provided evidence for the previously-unrecognised importance of off-stream floodplain billabongs for sawfishes in the Daly River region.

Access to the co-managed (Traditional Owners and Parks Australia) Kakadu National Park facilitated extensive research on the river shark populations of the Alligator River region. Indigenous employment opportunities were provided to local communities in Kakadu, with participants becoming key field personnel.

New knowledge and opportunities

Indigenous communities and ranger groups in northern Australia are uniquely placed to partner in research on threatened species and many opportunities exist to undertake research on aquatic, coastal and marine systems. Future surveys and genetic tissue sample collection of threatened sawfishes and river sharks will benefit from partnerships with Indigenous communities and ranger groups. Of particular value is the exchange of knowledge between western scientific research and management priorities, and traditional knowledge and management priorities. Advancing technologies supporting data collection on country will assist future integration of traditional knowledge (specifically, occurrence of critical habitat) and threatened species management.

Outputs and outcomes

Working with Indigenous communities in the Daly River region led scientists to discover the importance of off-stream floodplain billabongs for sawfishes, and drying floodplain billabongs were surveyed annually between 2012 and 2014 at the end of the dry season. The partnership also worked to save a group of juvenile sawfish that otherwise would have perished. Nine sawfish were relocated from a rapidly drying waterhole on the Malak Malak Land Trust to the main river channel in 2012, after scientists were alerted by Traditional Owners and Indigenous Rangers.

Employment was provided to several Indigenous community members during river shark and sawfish research in Kakadu National Park. Two publications were initiated that highlighted the natural values of Malak Malak country. The booklet Sawfish on Malak Malak Country is in preparation in partnership with the Malak Malak Ranger Group, and the brochure Migratory Shorebirds of Tyumalagun, Malak Malak Land Trust was published in partnership with Malak Malak Traditional Owners and the NERP Northern Australian Hub.

Also see story: Saving sawfish in the Daly River


Peter Kyne
(08) 8946 7616